In sport, fitness and gym facilities, activity and music noise:
transfers through the façade,
and propagates through the air to the nearest sensitive receptor.
Local Authorities often ask to consider this aspect to make sure the new facility doesn’t cause an adverse impact on the neighbours.
To do this, you need to undertake a noise impact assessment.
Note: Most of the time, music and activity noise impact assessments aim to not exceed (to a degree) the existing noise environmental noise levels at the receptors. There are called ‘subjective assessments’.
But sometimes, undertaking a subjective assessment is not the most ‘reasonable’ approach.
For very quiet sites, exceeding slightly the existing noise environmental noise levels may not cause an adverse impact.
In this case, undertaking an assessment based on not exceeding (again, to a degree) an objective requirement may be more appropriate. This requirement, usually from a guideline or a standard, has to be discussed and agreed with the Local Authority.
You call such as assessment an ‘objective assessment’.
What are the noise control solutions?
There are two main solutions to control music and activity noises in sport, fitness and gym facilities.
Improve the façade elements and/or the roof
You generally do it by creating cavities with dense & rigid board elements such as:
plasterboard lining on a frame with insulation in the cavity to improve the performance of the external walls.
You may need to decouple it from the rest of the building structure by introducing resilient fixings or, when possible, simply make the frame independant.
Examples of resilient fixings are resilient bars or resilient clips.
plasterboard ceiling on a frame with insulation in the cavity to improve the performance of the roof.
You may need to decouple it from the rest of the building structure by introducing resilient fixings.
As above, examples of resilient fixings are resilient bars, clips or hangers.
if the façade contains glazed elements, you may need to think about high performance double or triple glazing.
Sometimes, secondary glazing is necessary when you need to increase the sound insulation performance at low frequencies.
Install a noise limiter
A noise limiter is usually a secondary solution.
It is a device that limits (!!) the music levels emitted within a space to avoid too much noise spilling out of a facility.
This way the music levels stay below certain thresholds at the nearest noise sensitive receptors.
Note: the word thresholds here is with an “s” because you set the noise limiter in different frequency bands (or ranges).
Noise transfer through the internal building fabric
of sport, fitness and gym facilities
In a building, the airborne noise transfers through the wall/floor constructions into adjacent spaces.
What are the noise control solutions?
Depending of the site and the context, you may have to implement some or all the following noise control solutions.
Improve the floors
You can improve the airborne sound insulation performance of a floor construction with:
a dense suspended ceiling that you decouple from the main structure with resilient fixings such as resilient bars, clips or hangers.
Note: you may also need to consider a floating floor system in the gym.
However, this is more to control the impacts of weights dropped and vibrations of some activities & equipment (see future parts on vibration isolation).
Improve the walls
You can improve the airborne sound insulation performance of external wall constructions in vary many different ways.
However, these two systems are recurrent when receptors are fairly close (< 20m) to the facilities :
Drylining or ‘sandwich‘ systems. Most of the time, they include plasterboard on the indoor side.
Dense linings to masonry walls.
For both methods, it might be useful to think about introducing:
a larger cavity to better control low frequency transmission.
some decoupling elements to increase their performance such as
or even make the studs independant from the outer structure.
Note: If the facility is to move in an existing building, sound insulation testing are necessary to rate the performance of the separations elements and work out the best solution for improvement.
Note: sometimes, a full box-in-box construction will be necessary
Noise transfer via the ventilation systems
of sport, fitness and gym facilities
The music and activity noises from sport, fitness and gym facilities:
‘enter’ the ventilation systems
propagate through the ducts, and;
break outside or in another space within the same building (although this last one is unlikely because most facilities have their dedicated ventilation system).
What are the noise control solutions?
To control the noise transfer via a ventilation system, you can think about the following solutions.
This is probably the most common and easiest solution.
Their performance mainly depends on their length and their free area.
However, be aware that attenuators shouldn’t be installed anywhere in the ductwork for optimal acoustic performance.
The best locations to install the attenuators are:
centered in the wall separating the noisy space and the rest of the building;
or at the wall separating the noisy space and the rest of the building.
Strategically locate the inlets and outlets
Ideally, you should locate the inlets and oulets of a ventilation system as far away from the sensitive receptors as possible. (although some sites/buildings don’t offer a great amount of flexibility).
This way, you can reduce the performance of the attenuators (and save some cost)… or completely omit them.
Select larger and square ducts (for low frequency attenuation)
If you need to attenuate low frequency sounds, you could think about selecting large and square ducts.
Note: This is only worth if:
you have long runs of ductwork.
you have enough space for large ducts.
Select lined ducts
Lined ducts attenuatemore noise than unlined ducts.
Therefore, you can use them to attenuate some amount of music and activity noise.
Note: it is only worth if:
you have long runs of ductwork.
the pressure drop they create doesn’t require a higher air flow (which would be counter productive). This needs to be checked with the mechanical engineer on board.
Control of sound reverberated (i.e. reflected)
in sport, fitness and gym spaces
Within most sport, fitness and gym spaces, medium to high levels of sound are generated.
With a majority of hard surfaces (i.e. sound reflecting), the spaces can be very reverberant and amplify these sounds.
This also makes it harder to control the noise transfer from the gym to other receptors (within or outside of the same building).
What is the noise control solution?
To reduce that reverberation effect, you need to include sound absorptive finishes on the walls and the ceiling.
Where possible, it is useful to install a carpet to contribute to the sound absorption.
Various activities and equipment in sport, fitness and gym facilities produce noise and/or vibrations.
They do it in very different ways and at different intensities,leading to require very specific control solutions.
This section gives you a few examples of such activities and equipment.
Loud amplified sound
Most fitness and gym facilities play background music which is generally not a problem.
However, loud music (or sounds) may be played in some areas such as:
activity and dance studios
sports halls during events
external sport areas during events
Therefore, knowing which areas will produce loud amplified sound is important to take into account in the site analysis.
Some equipment that including rotating system (of some sort) not only produce noise but also vibrations. This includes:
The above equipment produces (relatively) mild but ‘constant’vibrations that are transmitted to the building structure.
Most resistance machines involve lifting a stack of weights indirectly by performing a specific movement. They include:
cable biceps/triceps bar
Each time the stack drops, it creates an impact. This impact produces vibrations that are then transmitted to the building structure.
Functional training and sport areas
Sport, fitness and gym facilities sometimes include functional training and/or sport areas.
All these activities involve medium (up to 20-30 kg) or body weights dropped from heights that usually don’t exceed knee height (i.e. about 0.5 m).
They create repeated and (sometimes) synchronised impacts that produce vibrations of ‘medium intensity’.
slam ball/wall ball work
sports courts (tennis)
Free weight areas
Free weight areas are probably the most challenging areas to isolate in sport, fitness and gym facilities.
Most of the time, they involve:
using medium (up to 20-30 kg) to very heavy (more than 50 kg) weights.
lifting them from knee to above head height.
Dropping them on the floor in, most of the time, an uncontrolled manner.
This process creates a very strong impact, with a lot of energy transmitted, that can be verydifficult to mitigate.
Who could the facility disturb?
(i.e. what are the noise sensitive receptors)
What is anoise sensitive receptor?
It is a property or a space located within the same building as the gym/sport facility or close to the site.
Examples of such receptors could be:
Commercial properties (i.e. offices, retail, etc)
Facilities with equipment sensitive to vibrations (such as laboratories, precision engineering facilities, etc)
One of the reasons why a site analysis is important is to help set relevant target for the acoustic treatment(s) should achieve.
This target, or also criterion, highly depends on the who/what the facility is likely to disturb.
Some noise sensitive receptors are more sensitive than others (see beside what a noise sensitive receptor is). For example:
dwellings are generally more sensitive to gym noise than commercial properties (especially at night).
Offices are more sensitive than retail premises.
Some laboratories may have equipment sensitive to levels of vibrations that are not perceptible by the human body.
For residential receptors, you usually discuss and agree with the Local Authority. For other receptors, you could agree a criteria with the landlord or the neighbouring facilities.
Therefore, understanding who your sport, fitness and gym facility might disturb will help define the level of noise and/vibration mitigations.
Where are the noise sensitive receptors?
Will they be disturbed by airborne noise, structure-borne noise or both?
Knowing where the noise sensitive receptors are allows you to know if the cause of the disturbance is:
Just airborne noise
Note: What is airborne noise?it is noise that only propagates through the air or the atmosphere.
It is the case when the facilities and the receptors are structurally disconnected (i.e. not part of the same building).
Just ‘structure-borne’ noise
Note: What is ‘structure-borne’ noise? it is noise generated by vibrations that propagate through a structure (mostly building structures here) and are re-radiated into noise.
It is the case when the facilities and the receptors are structurally connected (i.e. they are part of the same building) but are fairly remote from one another (i.e. not adjacent)
Or both airborne noise and ‘structure-borne’ noise (and maybe pure vibration as well):
It is the case when the facility and the receptors are structurally connected and are close to one another (or even adjacent!).
The relevant acoustic treatment to control the noise and/or vibrations from the facility varies for each situation above.
When will the facility operate?
Knowing when (i.e. which periods of the day) a sport, fitness and gym facility will operate
is very important to set relevant noise and/vibration control criteria.
Choosing to operate a facility, with loud music and/or heavy impacts on the floor, during late evening and night time periods is likely to increase the cost of acoustic treatment needed.
Especially, when the facility is near or adjacent to dwellings.
Note: Late evening is approximately after 19:00 hours. Night time is approximately between 23:00 and 07:00 hours.
The reason of this is because you need to set very strigent noise/vibration criteria for the activities to not cause any disturbance to neighbours needing to rest or sleep.
External noise levels are also lower between 19:00 and 07:00 hours, so the activities or the music are more audible to neighbours.
Note: This section might be redundant as a lot of sport, fitness and gym facilities operate 24/7 and their peak hours are generally early in the morning (between 06:00 and 08:00 hours) and in the evening (between 17:00 and 20:00 hours)
What is the structure of the building where the facility is?
The structure of a building has a big influence in the acoustic treatmentrequired.
The structure of the building influences:
The sound insulation treatment for the floors and the walls.
The vibration isolation treatment for the floors.
And you will generally need less material for heavy and stiff structures than for light structure.
Examples of heavy structures are in-situ concrete structures, brickwork, etc.
Examples of light structures are timber, mass timber, pre-cast concrete and metal frame structures.
Note: If you want to install a free weight area on a timber structure, it will be very challenging, or expensive, to control the ‘structure-borne‘ noise generated by the impacts of the weights on the floor.
Planning the facilities layout is an integral part of noise and vibration control strategy.
It may be obvious, but:
the further you locate the noisy and vibrating activities from the sensitive receptors,
the less materials and acoustic treatment you need.
So by just optimising the layout of a facility, you can already control the noise and vibration impacts of the activities.
Below are three types of areas that are worth considering for such as process.
Note: The last two points are particularly useful to know if you need to select different sites and assess their suitability for sport, fitness and gym use.
External running tracks, sport pitches and other areas
Some external sport areas produce noise that can be particularly disturbing when they are close to sensitive receptors.
Therefore, by locating these areas strategically, you can avoid some solutions like acoustic fences or earth bunds.
There are two main strategies here. Either you locate the areas:
away from the receptors, or;
‘behind’ the some buildings (that of the facilities for example) that you use as acoustic screens.
Obviously, they are very much site dependant and sometimes can’t be implemented.
Studios, sports halls and other indoor areas
Most studios, sports hall and other indoor areas organise noisy activities or events with loud amplified sounds.
They can be particularly disturbing to receptors within the same building or in a neighbouring building.
Although you can control noise (and vibrations!) from these areas with the finishes and the construction of the building. It is also worth thinking about locating them as far away as possible from the receptors … when possible.
Another solution is to use secondary spaces (like bathrooms, stores, locker rooms, etc) as ‘buffer’ areas between the noisy spaces and the receptors.
‘Vibrant’ equipment and activities
The vibrations generated by some equipment andactivities (such as free weight activities, skate parks and even sports courts and studios) can be particuarly complicated and/or expensive to control.
Therefore, it will always be useful to thinkwhere they can go in the facilities to minimise the amounts of anti-vibration materials.
at ground floor level and/or on heavy slabs.
As far away as possible from the sensitive receptors.
Suspended acoustic rafts are free-hanging and flat elements made with a thick fibrous or porous materials that have sound absorption qualities. You hang them horizontally at a certain distance from a hard surface (usually a soffit).
They are a popular option to reduce the sound reverberation in:
public spaces (such as receptions, entrance halls, etc)
Brief description of suspended acoustic raft systems
Although acoustic rafts are mostly square or rectangular, some of them are also round, oval or any other bespoke shape.
Some raft manufacturers/suppliers give the option to include lighting and other electrical systems within the rafts.
Sound absorption performance of suspended acoustic rafts
The sound absorptive materials used for suspended acoustic rafts generally achieve sound absorption Class A, Class B or Class C.
However, you should know that sound absorption classes are generally for a materials fixed to a hard surface with only one side visible. This side is the only one that absorbs sound. The other one doesn’t.
For acoustic rafts, it is a little bit different.
Suspended acoustic rafts – Sound absorption below and above
Not only the underside of the rafts absorbs sound, but also upper side indirectly.
Sound will first hit the hard surface above the acoustic rafts and then the upper side of the rafts.
Therefore, the distance between the rafts and the hard surface above has an influence on the sound absorption of the raft systems. Below approximately 1m, thefurther the rafts from the hard surface, the higher the sound absorption at mid and high frequencies.
Sound absorption below and above the rafts
Suspended acoustic rafts – Sound absorption of the edges
The edges of the rafts also absorb sound.
So a couple of large acoustic rafts absorb a little bit less sound than a few smaller acoustic rafts (with the same amount of absorptive materials).
Sound absorption of raft edges
Suspended acoustic rafts – Examples of sound absorption performances
To illustrate this, the graphs below shows examples of sound absorption performance for various raft systems.
Note: for rafts, the sound absorption performance is qualified in terms of equivalent absorption area per unit. Not in terms of sound absorption coefficient per m² of material.
Equivalent absorption area (m²) of 1200mm x 1200mm acoustic rafts located at different distances from the hard surface above 200 mm, 400 mm and 1000 mm and spaced 500 mm apart (Courtesy of Ecophon)
Sound absorption per m² of raft based on rafts of different sizes hung at 1000mm from the hard surface above
(Courtesy of Ecophon)
Suspended acoustic rafts – Specification
Based on the above, you can now understand that the sound absorption characteristics of raft systems don’t just depend on the material of the rafts.
Therefore, in the acoustic specifications, it is important to include the following information:
the sound absorption of the material installed in a room (when measured in line with ISO 354:2003 Acoustics — Measurement of sound absorption in a reverberation room)
the size of the rafts
the spacing between the rafts
the distance between the rafts and the hard surface above.
Note: the above is applicable to any other free hanging suspended acoustic system.
Materials used for suspended acoustic rafts
The materials preferred for acoustic rafts are usually thickfibrous or porous sound absorptive materials such as:
wood wool and mineral wool on top
Sometimes, the sound absorptive material is wrapped in a fibrous fabric or even painted.
Examples of suspended acoustic rafts
To find examples of suspended acoustic raft products, visit the Acoustic Design Cataloguehere.
Have you ever wondered what acoustic plaster systems are?
This post explains:
What are acoustic plaster sytems?
Advantages and uses of acoustic plaster systems
Configurations and characteristics of acoustic plaster systems
Sound absorption / acoustic absorption of acoustic plaster systems
Sustainability of acoustic plaster systems
Installation and workmanship for acoustic plaster systems
Examples of acoustic plaster products available on the market
Note: Although acoustic plaster systems do look really good, they might not be the solution if you are on a tight budget. Some of the reasons are because they include some high-end materials and have to be installed by specialists.
Are you looking to understand how acoustic products work and find examples available on the market?
Visit the Acoustic Design Catalogue by clicking on the button below.
Configurations and characteristics of acoustic plaster systems
Acoustic plaster systems usually come in pre-made panels that require final finishing on site.
They usually include the following:
a thick sound absorptive backing layer made of mineral wool, glass fibre, natural fibre or foam.
a porous (acoustically transparent) and more rigid base layer.
a thin finish layer of plaster trowel or spray applied to the backing layer.
a second thin layer can be applied to provide a finer finish.
The thickness of the panels ranges from approximately 10mm to 70 mm.
They can either be fixed to a hard surface or as part of a suspended ceiling (in which case, the thickness of the whole system can reach approximately 220 mm).
Sound absorption / acoustic absorption of acoustic plaster systems
The sound absorption performance of acoustic plasters depends on:
the material of the backing layer.
the thickness of the backing layer.
the porosity of the surface finishes.
if fixed to a suspended ceiling, the depth of the ceiling cavity.
The sound absorption characteristics of acoustic plasters are considered for each square meter of material and can achieve a large variety of performances ranging from Class D to Class A.
Note: The sound absorption characteristics of acoustic plasters increase with the thickness of the panels, the size of the cavity behind the panels and the presence of a backing layer behind the panels.
As mentioned above, plasters can also be painted provided the paint is approved by the manufacturer. This is because paint can modify the porosity of the finish layer and change the sound absorption capacity of the system.
Sustainability of acoustic plaster systems
Some plaster systems use natural or recycled materials (such as recycled glass granulate) for the backing layer.
The plaster finish can be made from cellulose, glass or marble granular aggregate, which is a secondary material obtained from the production of natural stone.
Installation and workmanship for acoustic plaster systems
Installing acoustic plaster systems requires a high level of workmanship to obtain the sound absorption performance desired and avoid cracks appearing with time.
Suppliers either have in-house and trained installers or certified installers.
Examples of acoustic plaster products
To find examples of suitable acoustic plaster products, visit the Acoustic Design Cataloguehere.
Each type of performance venue has specific needs for the rehearsals.
Theatres and Opera houses need a room close to the dimensions of the main stage, with the possibility of installing pieces of set and creating similar light and sound.
As well as requiring piano rooms for soloists, Opera houses also need large rooms for choirs and orchestra.
Concert halls and Philharmonies need an (or multiple) orchestral rehearsal room(s) able to accommodate a symphony orchestra with optimal acoustic conditions.
Atelier Crescendo’s comment:If the rehearsal room is part of a larger facility, it might be wise to locate it away from other sensitive and/or noisy areas (such as other rehearsal rooms, performance spaces, recording rooms, music practice rooms, etc). This way, you minimise the acoustic interferences between the spaces when they are used simultaneously.
Of all the performances, opera and symphonic music are those that remain the most traditional because they are linked to a majority of old musical works, with an audience made of specialist who does not always want to make this art accessible.
Operas can be more accessible because they follow the codes of theatres, that are more democratised, with the spectators facing the stage. People can be more or less seduced by the show. However, they can listen to the music, see the acting and can even sleep (!!) because no one is looking in their direction.
Symphonic music is in itself more difficult to access. The orchestra is the only visual show. There are no sets, no costumes, and the audience surrounds the performers. This allows anyone to watch the yawning and sleepy novices and any other attitudes that would not be appropriate.
The rehearsal room can facilitate access to new audiences
High urban densities of large cities have forced the construction of new performance venues outside of the city centres and far from their historical audience.
Between the venue and its adopted neighborhood, the rehearsal rooms are becoming places to gather and exchange where local amateur orchestras and younger musicians can play.
It is also an opportunity to open the building to a new audience and create links with it .
The rehearsal rooms should therefore be made very accessible on the ground floor at lobby level.
Providing comfort to the musicians
Transparent, windows and/or glazedfaçades bring natural light and therefore extra comfort to the professional musicians for whom the rehearsal rooms are actual working places. They also allow the public to see what happens inside.
When professional musicians are not rehearsing, these rooms can turn into incubators for young future talents who will come to practice together.
Turning rehearsal rooms into performance spaces
Rehearsal rooms must be able to transform into small / informal performance spaces.
They need to be able accommodate unexperienced audiences installed in a frontal configuration, with a clear separation between the stage and the audience, to focus more on music and its feelings.
Concequently, the rooms need to achieve scenographic, acoustic and safety requirements. It will be necessary to design and study the installation and the sightline of the audience, the concealment and the control of the natural light with curtains and lightlock accesses.
Atelier Crescendo’s comment: the acoustic contribution of the seats will also need to be considered.
A control room, part of the technical infrastructures, might be useful with open access to promote creativity and inspire future performances.
The acoustics will have to be variable according to the use of the room (it is for a rehearsal or a show? with or without an audience? with a small or a large orchestra? with amplified or purely acoustic music?).
Atelier Crescendo’s comment: This can be done with “passive” variable acoustic systems. Read Variable sound absorption systems for more information. It is also possible to use “active” variable acoustic systems with electro-acoustic systems (using microphones, loudspeakers and special audio processing devices).
Access and practicalities
Like any space open to the public, it will be necessary to study the number and the dimensions of the accesses and the circulations.
The installation conditions for the public with emergency lighting and signage, and taking into account all the publics including people with reduced mobility.
The function of the rehearsal rooms is important. Their technical aspect is even greater as their “small” size requires optimisations. Their need for a high flexibility requires specific studies and mixed infrastructures. Rehearsal rooms are not always considered at their fair value in briefs / programs and budgets, in France and on international projects.
Sound reverberation conditions for music rehearsal rooms
Good sound reverberation conditions in a large music rehearsal rooms contribute to:
the audibility and the clarity of the musical messages
the musical intonations
the musical tones
the balance of the sounds
Therefore, unsurprisingly, getting the reverberation conditions right is THE focus point for the acoustic design.
You need to consider:
the overall sound reverberation quality of the rehearsal room to control the loudness and the clarity of the music played. You usually do this by adjusting the volume and the general amount of sound absorptive/reflective materials.
the timing of the sound reflected back to the musicians (Do you remember?Part 1: The goals for a successful acoustic designexplains the necessity to balance early and late reflected sound for musicians on stage). You manage this by adjusting the orientation and/or the shapes of the surfaces around the musicians and the orchestra conductor. Sometimes, you also need to add surfaces such as overhead reflectors, orchestra shells, etc.
the frequency content of the sound reflected back to the musicians (Do you remember? the end of Part 1: The goals for a successful acoustic design explains that musicians like to hear rythms and musical expressions that are mostly emitted at medium and high frequencies). Therefore, the reflected sound should contain less energy at low frequencies than at higher frequencies. You manage this by adjusting the dimensions and physical properties of the finishes and the materials (ex: thickness, width, length, density or also stiffness) around the musicians, so that they absorb more energy at low frequencies.
For large ensembles (including 20 musicians), the room volume should to be relatively large so that the music doesn’t sound too loud. If the ensembles include loud instruments (such as brass instruments or also percussions), the volume should be even larger.
You shoud also set an area where artists will sit (or stand!) and make sure they are not too close to (vertical and flat) acoustically reflective surfaces like the walls.
Norwegian Standard 8178:2014 – Acoustic criteria for rooms and spaces for music rehearsal and performance provides guidance on the necessary volume and space for music rehearsal and perforance spaces depending on the type of music played inside. Read Acoustic design planning for music spaces for more details.
Note: The international standard ISO 23591:2021 – Acoustic quality criteria for music rehearsal rooms and spaces provides the same guidance.
For large music ensemble rooms with more than 20-25 musicians (our case here), you should consider the dimensions below.
(just string instruments, choirs, etc)
minimum 700 m3
Net floor area
minimum 50 m2
minimum 2 m2 /musician
Soffit / Ceiling height
minimum 5 m
(i.e. brass bands, concert bands, big bands,
percussion ensembles, symphony orchestras)
minimum 30 m3 / musician
concert bands: minimum 1000 m3
brass bands: minimum 1500 m3
Symphony orchestras: minimum 1800 m3
Net floor area
minimum 120 m2
minimum 2 m2 /musician
Soffit / Ceiling height
minimum 5 m
Room proportions and geometry for music rehearsal rooms
One of the most successful shapes for large music ensemble rooms is the cuboïd shape such as a cube or the so called ‘shoebox’ shape.
What is a room with a shoebox shape? It is a room with a rectangular floor area, parallel side walls and tall ceiling / soffit. The base volume is two cubes located next to one another.
However, sound diffusive finishes and/or shapes should be planned to avoid creating flutter echoes.
You should also avoid any shapes that focus the sound in certain areas. This is because the sound field should be as ‘diffuse’ as possible in the room.
Note: you obtaina diffuse sound field in a space when the sound pressure level is uniform throughout the space.
Examples of shapes that focus sound are presented below.
Acoustic treatment for music rehearsal rooms
For large music rehearsal rooms, it is very likely that most walls need to include some acoustic treatment (or at least acoustic consideration) in the form of sound absorption or sound diffusion.
The function of the acoustic treatment varies depending on:
the location of the walls in relation to the orchestra
the height of the wall section considered.
Therefore, this section presents acoustic design tips for :
the wall behindthe conductor
the walls at low level
the walls at upper level
Acoustic treatment for the walls of music rehearsal rooms
Wall behind the orchestra conductor
The wall behind the orchestra conductor should include some amount of sound absorption and/or diffusion.
This avoids strong ‘specular’ reflections to hit the wall and reach the conductor again, creating the perception of a virtual orchestra behind her/him (see below, specular and diffusive reflections are explained).
Note:what is a specular reflection? a specular reflection is, similarly to light reflected on a mirror, a reflection that bounces off a surface with the same angle as when it hits the surface. A diffusive reflection is a reflection that bounces off a surface in different directions.
Walls at low level
Assuming most musicians face the conductor, you should avoid sound absorbing finishes at low level, i.e. approximately below head height. Instead, you should favor elements that reflect and diffuse sound at medium and high frequencies.
This ensures that the conductor and the orchestra receive lateral sound reflections (musicians rely more on lateral reflections to hear themselves and others).
However, there could be an option for these surfaces to absorb some amount of acoustic energy at low frequencies.
For this applications, materials that can absorb sound at low frequencies generally include:
a sheet / board /face that is not so dense
a cavity behind with sound absorption inside as an option.
Examples of such materials are:
plasterboard or gypsum based boards on frame
timber sheets/boards mounted on frame
Note: There are many other specialist materials and configurations that can absorb sound at low frequencies.
On the walls located far from the musicians, it might be necessary to install sound absorbing finishes to avoid any late (or unwanted) reflected sound.
Walls at upper level
The upper walls, i.e. approximately above head height, can include sound diffusive surfaces.
However, they are a good location to add broadband absorption materials to lower the overall sound reverberation within the rehearsal room.
What are broadband absorption materials? they are materials that absorb sound over a large range of frequencies. Examples of such materials are fibre, wool or also foam based materials.
Acoustic treatment for the ceiling / soffit of music rehearsal rooms
A fully or partially sound absorptive ceiling can also be useful to reduce the overall sound reverberation within the rehearsal room. Especially when you need to absorb sound at low frequencies.
Acoustic consideration for the floor of music rehearsal rooms
Hard floor finish fixed on concrete hardly absorbs any sound.
However, a raised hard floor finish can absorb sound at some low frequencies due to the cavity created by the system.
This feature can be particularly useful for the musicians who rely on reflected sound at medium and high frequencies (as mentionned previously).
For the same reason, carpet should be avoided as it absorbs sound at medium and high frequencies.
See below some ideas of sound absorption performances achieved by different floor finishes.
Sound absorption coefficients of different floor finishes
(ref: Acoustic Absorbers and Diffusers, Theory, Design and Application – Third Edition – Trevor J. Cox and Peter D’Antonio)
Overhead reflectors for music rehearsal rooms
For large and tall spaces where large orchestras play, it might be necessary to plan for sound reflectors above the musicians, also called ‘overhead reflectors’.
They are useful to provide additional early reflections and improve the acoustic conditions within the orchestra. Sometimes, additional wall reflectors above head height or even orchestra shells are also installed to provide the same effect.
For large (and loud) ensembles, overhear reflectors should be at approximately 8-10 m above the floor level.
For small (and quiet) ensembles, they could be located as low as 6 m above the floor level .
If the overhead reflectors are too low, they could cause some loudness issues (i.e. the music will sound too loud)
You should favor arrays of smaller reflectors, instead of a single large reflector or just a few large reflectors, to optimise the diffusion of the acoustic energy across the orchestra.
Some of the most common shapes for overhead reflectors are curved (convex), random waves, ‘QRD’ type (‘QRD’ stands for Quadratic Residue Diffuser) or any other shapes with irregular and random width and depth.
Flat reflectors should also be avoided.
See below some examples of acoustic diffusers (although many other types of diffusers exist).
You should favour relatively dense and stiff materials to ensure that sound hitting the reflector is not absorbed, especially at the lower frequencies due to the resonance of the reflectors.
Examples of materials are:
wood particle or fibre based
Did you know?even with a dense and stiff material, a flat reflector can resonate and absorb sound at low frequencies. Curving it will stiffen it, increase its natural frequency and reduce the low frequency absorption.
Background noise levels in music rehearsal rooms
A music rehearsal room is an environment where the musicians need to hear their own musical details and those of the other musicians.
Because a high background noise can mask these details, it is important to keep it as low as possible when the space is in use.
Sometimes, music rehearsal rooms are also used as large recording studios for large ensembles and orchestras. So it is important to ensure acoustic conditions suitable for recording activites, i.e. with a very low background noise levels.
Therefore, the acoustic design should include control of noise from (some of or all) the following sources:
mechanical systems and machineries
external noise (such as road, air or even rail traffic)
References for acoustic design of music rehearsal rooms
Design of music rehearsal rooms – Part 1: The goals for a successful acoustic design
When Atelier Crescendo asked Sir James MacMillan about how the quality of the music spaces can contribute to the musical creativity, the music education and the music performance during his interview, he replied:
“It is very important for young musicians to sound good in the early stages of their musical development. If they sound good on their instrument, in their voice, in their choir, in their ensemble, to their peers, to their parents and to the local audience that comes to listen, then the delight of music-making is enhanced. And that delight is part of what motivates a young musician to continue.
So, it is vitally important to get the acoustical design right in an educational setting.”
Sir James MacMillan
Following this comment, it was hard to not write anything about the acoustic design of music rehearsal rooms.
But the design of such spaces goes beyond the acoustic aspect. So, based on their experience and knowledge, Atelier Crescendo and Ducks Sceno have collaborated on writing a series articles to raise insight on what the design of rehearsal rooms should consider.
The topic is pretty large for acoustics as there are different types of rehearsal/practice rooms to cover.
Therefore, this series of articles only consider rehearsal spaces for orchestras or ensembles of a ‘standard’ size.
what is considered an orchestra/ensemble of a ‘standard’ size? this is a group of musicians that includes:
between 12 and 35 musicians.
a minimum number or no power amplified instruments.
Also, some acoustic aspects have not been treated in this series. They are external noise intrusion, the internal sound insulation, noise and vibration from the building services. If you need some insights about these topics, you can read the following posts:
What is a successful acoustic design for a music rehearsal room?
You can consider successful the acoustic design of a rehearsal room when you have created a space:
where musicians can hear themselves and each other.
where the music energy is contained to the right level (not too loud but not too quiet either).
where musicians enjoy playing and they can prepare them well to perform (this is when the rehearsal space is part of a large performance facility with a main – larger – venue).
These three aspects are discussed below in more detail.
A space where musicians can hear themselves and each other
Obviously, to hear your own instrument and other instruments, there needs to be a balance between the volume of every instrument.
To hear your own instrument, its volume needs to be higher (to your ears!) than the volume of the music around you. But not too high either, because you still want to hear the other instruments to play in sync with them.
Also, a good balance would make the quieter or more remote instruments still audible. Whilst the louder and close instruments are attenuated enough, so that their sound doesn’t mask the others.
Note:We are talking about instruments here, but the same applies to voices.
But, in an environment with reflective surfaces surrounding you, it’s not just about volume. It is also about the timing!
More exactly, when the sound of your and other instruments, reflected on the surrounding surfaces, reaches you.
This is when you get into the science of sound reverberation.
Note:if you need a refresher about the basics of sound reverberation, you can read these two posts:
When designing an environment for orchestras and ensembles, you need to balance the following:
the direct and reflected sound energy of the instruments arriving early to your ears, and ;
the reflected sound energy of the instruments arriving late to your ears.
Generally, the reflected sound energy arriving within the first 100 ms is quite beneficial for the intelligibility and clarity of the musical messages.
Finally, it is particularly important for the musicians to hear musical details such as attack transients. They allow to communicate the rhythm or the musical expressions and are generally emitted at mid and high frequencies.
So it is crucial to keep the direct and reflected sounds at these frequencies as much as possible and absorb some amount of low frequencies.
A space that contains music energy to the right level
Obviously, playing within an orchestra that sounds loud is not comfortable. But the main problem is that it causes hearing loss if it happens regularly.
Most of the time, musicians can’t wear ear defenders or ear plugs because they need to be able to hear themselves as well as their fellow musicians.
An orchestra can sound loud for several reasons:
the rehearsal space is just too small for an orchestra.
the rehearsal space is too small for the type of orchestra. In other words, there are too many loud instruments (such as percussions, brass instruments, amplified instruments, etc) and the volume of the space is not big enough to accommodate them.
some surrounding surfaces reflect too much sound at certain locations.
some hard surfaces are too close. These can be the walls, the balconies or also the overheadreflector(s).
there are too many hard finishes (i.e. sound reflective) and not enough sound absorptive materials.
All or some of the above can lead to a form of Lombart effect (also called cocktail effect). The orchestra is too loud for the musicians to hear themselves. So they play louder. But their neighbours also play louder. And that snowballs throughout the orchestra making it very loud.
A space where musicians enjoy playing and can prepare them well to perform
Sometimes the rehearsal space is part of a large performing arts facility. It can then be used by either the local orchestra or touring orchestras who need to do their final adjustments before the ‘big concert’.
Note: Sometimes, rehearsal spaces are also used as actual performance spaces for smaller audiences.
Because every performance venue is acoustically different (this is what makes them unique!), musicians always have to adapt the way they play for the space. Whilst the main performance space might not always be available, the rehearsal should offer an opportunity to know what it is like to play on stage.
Obviously, this is to a certain degree, because you can’t replicate the exact same acoustic conditions of the stage. At least, musicians should be given a taste.
On a more general point of view, rehearsal spaces should make the musicians ‘feel at home’ as much as possible, whether they are from the local orchestra or a touring orchestra.
It should be a comfortable place (acoustically, visually and physically) where musicians enjoy playing and practicing. So that they are in the best conditions to communicate the emotions of their music.
So the architectural design should be carefully thought out including:
the shape of the finishes and the room itself.
the color of the finishes and the furniture within the room.
the layout of the room and of the building.
the acoustic and the physical flexibility of the room.
the access to the rehearsal room from other spaces of the building (such as changing rooms, restaurant, reception, toilets, breakout areas, etc)
References for acoustic design of music rehearsal rooms
The documents and materials reviewed to write this article are presented at the end of Part 2.
If you are working on a building project with a large space, you might want to use it for a broad range of activities.
Depending on the building is, the activities could be:
amplified music performances
quiet acoustic music performances
loud acoustic music performances
conferences or lectures
The space will not only need to be very flexible physically to accommodate these activities, but also acoustically. In fact, each activity requires very different sound reverberation conditions to work optimally and ensure acoustic comfort for the users (and listeners for some cases).
Note: If you need a refresher on the basics of sound reverberation, go to this page.
One of the ways to make a space acoustically flexible is by changing the sound absorption in the space. Essentially, you either:
reveal or add sound absorptive materials to make the room less reverberant, and;
hide or take away sound absorptive materials to make the room more reverberant (or more lively).
This is done with systems called variable acoustic systems or also variable sound absorption systems.
Note: Other ways of changing the sound reverberation in spaces is by changing their volume or artificially adding reverberation with electroacoustic systems.
What are these systems? This post presents, with pros and cons explained, some of the most commonly used variable sound absorption systems, including:
extended along walls to lower the sound reverberation in a space, or;
stored in corners or in dedicated cupboards to increase the sound reverberation.
To know more on acoustic curtains (such as installation, acoustic performance, characteristics of the fabric, etc), follow this link to the Acoustic Design Catalogue.
Acoustic curtain systems mostly involve fabric and a rail, which is relatively inexpensive compared to other sound absorption materials or systems.
Easy to operate
They are also manually operated. No need for a complicated motorised system.
Quick to deploy
Unlike certain systems that take a few minutes to deploy (or even longer), deploying acoustic curtains only takes a few seconds.
Limited sound absorption
Curtains are not the most efficient sound absorber. Consequently, you need more material to cover large wall surfaces and provide a sufficient variation in the reverberation time. If you design a space with a large volume, you could also struggle to find enough available space.
Absorb sound at mid and high frequencies
As a fibrous material, fabric is more efficient at absorbing sound at mid and high frequencies than at low frequencies.
Therefore, you will need to findother sound absorption means if you want to control the sound reverberation at low frequencies (especially in spaces where music is played).
MF: Do you also work on the positioning of the instruments depending on the hall?
JB: Absolutely – for me it’s an incredibly important aspect, not just for the quality of sound and comfort of playing but also as a means of expression. Orchestras have, throughout the ages, been set up in many different ways, depending on the repertoire, the time period, the concert hall and for me it is definitely part of the expressive role of a conductor to be flexible with orchestral seating.
Just to begin with, there are many pieces (particularly written in the last 60 years or so) where the composer asks for specific or unusual seating plans of orchestras because the roles played by certain instruments or groups of instruments do not function in the traditional manner.
The most famous extreme example of this would be Stockhausen’ Gruppen where he asks for three separate orchestras to surround the audience creating the most astonishing surround sound effects.
But there are many examples of pieces placed on stage with different layouts. From Stockhausen’s Fünf weitere Sternzeichen where the strings are placed behind the winds, brasses, harps and percussion and space is left between the conductor and the audience for a solo tuba to move around. Or Boulez’s Rituel where 8 groups of players are asked to be as far away from each other as possible on stage (perhaps an early form of social distancing!).
For more traditional repertoire there are some decisions you have to make, for instance where to place your violins. In most music before around 1825(ish), Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn for example, you probably want the 1st violins on the conductor’s left hand side and the 2nd violins on the right hand side, so that the audience will experience a stereo, antiphonal effect as the composers often write dialogues between the violins into their music.
Whereas for some composers like maybe Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Strauss and some more modern composers, you have all violins sitting on the same side so that the sound image comes from the same place and arrives already mixed to the audience.
There is also a question in every concert about the double basses. Personally, I love big bass sounds and I want the audience to really hear them as the foundation of the music.
I love having bases along the back of an orchestra, as opposed to one side, so that the sound of the lowest note in the orchestra permeates through the orchestra and the whole sound (and intonation) of the orchestra is based on the bases (pun intended). Although of course, it depends on the acoustic properties of the venue and what sounds best.
However, there is some music for which the music written by the composer demands different orchestral textures and timbres. A great example is Stravinsky’s music for which you would place your bass section to one side so that the bass sonorities are clear and more separated from other instruments in the orchestra to best serve the way the music functions.
And then, of course, the complication is that you are not playing in venues that are all the same or with robots but real people. If you want the music in a certain way for the audience, you need to create conditions for the musicians to play to their best. The setting up of the orchestra also becomes a dialogue between your ideals, the venue and the players.
For the recording of the Symphony No. 1 from Franz Schmidt, I really wanted antiphonal violins, because I love that stereo sound and I felt there were a number of passages in the music where that would really add something. However, when we got into the sessions, the violins didn’t feel comfortable being so far away from each other (in the recording studio they struggled to hear each other from opposite ends of the stage). Because there are many passages with a lot of delicate details that they had to really get together as a singular violin section, the leader advised me to put them all on one side, which I did.
Suddenly they played with such confidence as they could all hear each other that it simply sounded so much better and outweighed my initial ideas. (This also shows the value of listening to what the players have to say – especially when they know their own orchestras and venues much better than you do!)
MF:Part of the design of stages is to control the loudness on stage, so the music is not too loud and you manage the noise exposure of the musicians. What are your views and experience on this?
JB: Well this is a very important issue, particularly at the moment. Modern orchestras accept (and even expect) the wearing of earplugs and sound protectors on stage as a normality. They are necessary to protect musicians who are seriously struggling with hearing loss after years of playing in orchestras – and even more in opera pits.
However, it is undeniable that the volume of orchestras has increased over the years. For a number of reasons – the halls we play in are often much bigger, the instruments have changed as well, all of which has developed symbiotically with a changing aesthetics of orchestral and instrumental sound.
In older halls like the Musikverein, you notice how loud a modern orchestra can sound. Whereas if you play in Chicago Symphony Centre, in The Shed in Tanglewood or the Royal Albert Hall, suddenly you have to develop this sound which projects and travels over huge distances.
For me, I have actually learned a lot from this phenomenon. The orchestras whose sound I love (Vienna Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra or Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra) all play (or played) in smaller, old fashioned halls where making music isn’t about projecting your sound to the back of the 5000 seater hall, but more about creating warmth. Practically you don’t need to play too loudly in order for everyone just to hear, and so what you can do is discover more colours and nuances in the sound colours.
This idea has been central to my ideal of orchestral sound and, whilst both conducting and rehearsing, I often find myself asking orchestras to play softer, focusing on tone quality and warmth more than projection.
MF: What is your view on the quality of different styles of halls? Especially between shoebox and vineyard styles.
Yes, very interesting question. The first thing is that all musics are different. And I don’t just mean classical, pop, etc, I also mean Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Stravinsky, Boulez, etc. There is no absolute ‘perfect’ acoustic where you can play all music equally effectively. So even the idea that one style of hall is better acoustically and the other style better visually is not true (for me) because it depends on the repertoire being performed.
I have to say that I have experienced phenomenal concerts in both styles of hall and enjoyed performing in both, but I think the audience perspective is more important – at least it has to take into account the orchestra’s perspective because they are highly unlikely to perform a great concert if they are not comfortable on stage.
I love the social ideal in a vineyard hall (think Berlin Philharmonie, the New World Centre Miami, or the Leipzig Gewandhaus from the 1980s) that the audience is closer to the stage, they have better visual contact, and the hall doesn’t dissect communities by separating the expensive seats from the cheap seats.
However, I sat in many different seats in shoebox concert halls and felt incredibly connected to the stage – particularly when the halls aren’t too big (Concertgebouw, Musikverein, Snape Maltings or Berlin Konzerthaus).
Interesting to note that in the old style halls, the most expensive seats are normally at the front of the balcony which are the furthest from the stage, but of course still close enough to feel very connected.
I do think that we shouldn’t forget that music is an auditory art form. Whilst there are many ways to enjoy concerts, for social reasons, meditating on your day, enjoying the visual drama of the playing of the instruments, or just having a nice nap. But it is when somebody listens to the music actively that a live concert becomes something unique and nothing else in the world comes close. This is the experience we should all be striving for people to have.
MF: Can you share a little more about your favourite venues? There may be some you would advise people to go to or you have some interesting tips about some types of venues.
One of the cleverest halls is the Seiji Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood. It was completed in the 90s and in essence, it is a very traditional and fairly small shoebox with balconies. There is a summer festival there where the Boston Symphony Orchestra goes. The back wall of the hall can be folded out and opens to this sort of amphitheatre of a grass hill where people come, have picnic and listen to music all weekend. It is an amazing place.
It really has both the inside and the outside atmospheres. You get this wonderful, warm acoustic, and actually, over the six or seven years of conducting concerts there, the increase of moisture in the wood seems to have improved the warmth of the hall.
I think Suntory Hall in Tokyo is one of the most extraordinary halls. There is something magical about the sound there. The sound feels like you are not only close to the stage, but somehow you are also right at the back of the hall. Music sounds there as one single sound, it has this sort of visceral attack, very clean, very clear. You hear all the details and also the resonance of the space.
Opera houses also are very interesting. They are often quite dry. You have this small box in which the orchestra plays (the orchestra pit), and the sound goes vertically up from this pit, which the audience then hears mostly as reflected sound. You have singers on stage, who sing directly at the audience and the orchestra (allowing both to hear the singers clearly) and for the audience you get a wonderful balance between the reflected orchestral sound and the direct vocal sound. If you go to the Royal Opera House (London) or Palais Garnier (Paris) or even a smaller house like Gyndlebourne or the Comischer Oper (Berlin), the absolute best seats to hear a performance from are right at the very top at the very back (often the cheapest seats), but you will hear the most perfect sound. You hear this sort of shimmering effect, the balanced sound, the voice and the orchestra amplified in its own resonating chamber, as though the pit becomes part of the instrument of the orchestra like the body of a violin or the sound board on a piano. It’s an extraordinary experience.
Actually, almost the worst seats are at the first row of the stalls. At the first row, you are very close to the action visually, but the balance between the direct sound coming from the voice and the sound of the orchestra is unmixed and can sound separated. That’s also why when rehearsing for opera, you have somebody sitting in the front few rows balancing from there – normally if the balance is ok right at the front it will work everywhere else.
MF: For some halls, the acoustic conditions might not always be optimal depending on where you sit. The music you hear on stage could also be very different compared to the music you hear in the rest of the hall. How do you prepare for all this?
There are some concert halls where if you sit in the wrong seat, it might be an expensive seat, but if you sit in the wrong seat, it is really not a good experience. In a really good hall, there are very few differences between the seats.
What happens then is, most of the time, conductors or managers never sit in them. They judge performances from a very specific select set of locations. We forget sometimes that if you sit in a different place, you can hear something different.
An orchestra manager some years ago said to me “Look, you need to sit in every seat”. Because you need to know how every one of your audience feels. He was trying to find solutions to make all his audience happy. If we want to inspire people into music we love and make them hear what we want them to hear, we need to make sure we play well for every single seat.
Practically, to do this as a conductor, you often have somebody assisting you whose job is mostly to walk around the hall and give little notes back about how it sounds in the hall. I also find it hugely useful to have assistants, because they can conduct five minutes whilst you can walk around the hall and listen, so that you can really understand the translation from what it sounds like on the podium to what it sounds like in the hall.
There is another trick that I learned from one of my mentors, a conductor called Stanislav Skrowaczewski.
He used to occasionally turn 90 degrees to the orchestra, by putting his left ear towards the empty space, to listen to the hall.
You have to work at it a bit, but it gives you a really good sensation of what the hall sounds like, as opposed to when you are facing the orchestra where you hear mostly the direct sounds from the instruments.
Doing this gives you one more bit of information and it allows you can create a better balance between the sound of the orchestra and the reverberation of the hall, hopefully creating a fantastic sounding concert in every seat.
Marc Fuzellier-Hart: Hi Jonathan, can you introduce yourself and explain how you got into conducting ensembles and orchestras.
Jonathan Berman: Hello, I am Jonathan, an orchestral conductor. I got into music because my family is very musical, so music has always been around me. As a young kid, I learned cello and piano, and I sung which then expanded to organ, harpsichord, viols de gamba, guitar and all sorts of other instruments that I could fit around that.
However, when I was 13-14, I had some wrist injuries from playing piano too much. So I had to give up piano and cello, and actually, all my instruments for about a year. It was during this period that I really wanted to make music and discovered conducting.
With six other friends, I put on a concert of very small choir pieces. This is when I found that conducting suited me so much better than playing instruments. Even as an instrumentalist I had always wanted to play with other people; I was fascinated not only by sound, but also by its function, its meaning and why composers made certain decisions.
So I found conducting very early on and whilst I was at school, I did little bits of conducting. I was incredibly lucky to essentially go to a specialist music school. There were lots of really good musicians. We had orchestras and choirs that I conducted, then during the summer holidays I would go on conducting courses.
After school, I went to a conservatoire in Holland. I did a Bachelor’s and a Master’s both in conducting, which was an amazing education. I studied with one main teacher for six years, and it was really an old-school apprenticeship more than a college education as I was working as his assistant.
I would often travel with my teacher to his concerts and rehearsals, and it was great seeing the way one conductor would work differently with different orchestras, express things differently, in different countries and in different repertoires.
Now [December 2020] is obviously a very bizarre moment, but in normal times I am lucky enough to travel around the world, conducting orchestras, operas, small groups as well. I do a lot of contemporary music. I really believe that our musical tradition needs to be a living one that connects the past and the present.
MF:Yes, it is great to be able to speak to the composer and ask them the way they ideally want the music to be played. And then you can add your own taste and colour.
JB: Absolutely, we spend hours thinking “I wonder what Beethoven meant here”. When you work with living composers like James Macmillan, Mark Turnage or George Benjamin, and you go “what do you mean by this here?” and you can have an answer. I love that, and I learn so much from the composers I work with. I think it is hugely important to work with people who challenge the boundaries of our creative tradition.
MF:What have been your activities during lockdown?
JB: Just before lockdown started, I had my first set of cancellations and there was a huge amount of anxiety for all performers. Out of this moment came my first lockdown project – an initiative called ‘ Stand Together Music ’ which I set up with my sister, Imogen, who is very involved in the popular music world. For the first 100 days of lockdown we published a list of every cancelled concert, both classical and non-classical along with daily playlists on Spotify using recordings by cancelled artists.
We ended up curating 12,149 tracks, over 1000 hours of music created by over 10,000 composers/ performers/ orchestras/ bands who all suffered from cancellations. Our aim was to try and encourage people to stream music during (and after) the lockdown consciously so that in some small way we could divert the streaming revenue back to the artists who were suffering cancellations. We also did special features on all UK orchestras, opera houses and many european and international establishments as well.
My other big lockdown project was about making 9 films of and about classical music (which we talk about elsewhere in this blog) – which were nominated and even won some prizes at film festivals – one, unbelievably, for best cinematography!
I was also lucky enough to get into the recording studio just before the first lockdown to start recording a cycle of the complete symphonies of the Austrian composer Franz Schmidt. This is part of a bigger project I have set up – ‘The Franz Schmidt Project’ – to promote his music leading up to his 150th Birthday in 2024.
The backbone of the project will be the complete cycle of his symphonies which I am recording with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and through which we will promote Schmidt’s music along with interviews, live performances (throughout the world), radio shows, television broadcasts and talks.
Recording is a fascinating acoustical challenge because microphones don’t pick up sound in the same way ears do – and orchestral sound is a pretty complex sound to begin with!
So in essence, you have three variables on the sound; the playing of the orchestra, the acoustics of the hall and the placing, number, type and balance of microphones.
I am very much a believer in using as few microphones as possible (I think still some of the best sounding recordings ever are the old Mercury Living Presences recordings from the 50’s using three, occasionally only one, Schoeps M201 microphones – even for huge orchestras). Whilst we did have more than three microphones for this recording, the process was the same whereby we tried to get the sound and balance in the room and then replicate that sound through the microphones. We recorded in the beautiful Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff.
Interestingly my relationship with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales goes back over 10 years and I was at the opening of the hall. It is fascinating to hear how the sound of the hall has changed over the years. It has softened over time. I have noticed the same effect at the Ozawo Hall in Tanglewood (another wooden hall in the USA) whereby each year the sound feels warmer and in particular the upper frequencies soften.
Back to Cardiff, the Hoddinott hall has some wonderful flexible acoustics. On the first day of rehearsals, we found the hall (both on stage and in the recording booth) a little too dry and small for the expansive soundscape of the Schmidt symphony, and so we were able to open some doors, right at the top of the hall to increase the physical volume of the hall until we got a sound that we liked through the microphones.
MF: Are you involved in any activities around educating people for music or raising people’s sensitivity to music?
JB: I don’t have an official position of teaching but I absolutely love to teach conducting. As for raising sensitivity to music, one of our great roles as musicians is to bring people into music and show them what joy there is in actively listening to music.
You know, we have a thousand different types of music and ways to listen depending on the functions in our life. We put music on when we go to the gym, we put music on to sleep, to cover awkward silences in a conversation or just as some kind of background. That is all wonderful. I use music like that. But there is this thing which I love, it can be any genre, you sit, you focus and you engage actively your imagination, your sensitivity; you engage and commit yourself fully in following the music.
I love bringing people into this way of listening and this world of music. I love showing them different types of music, different pieces of the same composer that they know or letting them see some aspects of a certain piece of music. It really gets me going and I want to share that with people. Musical understanding is not something that you either have or don’t have – a clandestine group of those in the know. There are many pieces, composers which at first hearing I didn’t understand or didn’t even like. But through time, through multiple listenings, through listening to others talk about this music, I have come to absolutely adore these pieces and composers.
I recently filmed a series called Postcards from Vienna, where I talk about viennese music. Along with an amazing woman called Emily Ingram (co-founder and CEO at Onjam), we made four episodes of this documentary about classical music along with five other classical music movies. They are not just video performances, but videos that somehow visually draw people into the underlying structures, images, ideas, associations, illusions within a piece of music. All of these movies were trying to create, in different ways, environments for people to get closer to this active way of listening and interacting with music.
The first we did, during lockdown, was the Goldberg Variations with a Dutch string trio. They were combined with Sir Simon Russell Beale reading texts, all about solitude and photographs from the artist Kristina Feldhammer.
Then we did a video of Stravinsky Septet where we created new artworks inspired by artists who connected with the period of Stravinsky’s work. Natalia Goncherova, Sonya Delauney and Lyubov Popov for the first ‘Ballet Russe’ movement, Mark Rothko for the middle movement and then we recreated the process of painting Lee Kransner Abstract Expressionist painting.
I wanted to show and to visualise that for Stravinsky in the Septet. He is developing and discovering formal processes and putting them either onto something old fashioned or something really new. However, he is not writing a piece of music about the formal processes, but in fact the opposite. He is using the formal process to create character, emotion and direction – just music!
My idea is that, without actually educating people, without being a teacher and say “this is what happens, you go and learn it”, you can provide them a key into something that is not simplistic but nuanced and complex. You don’t have to talk or express it with complexity.
I tried in the movies to realise these ideas using the visual elements of films. Pictures say a thousand words. In the documentary series of Postcards from Vienna (where I talk about music), I don’t use musical terms or long words. I try to visualise the musical processes and the decisions of the composers.